Review: Catherine Asaro, The Last Hawk (sf novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews

at long last

I'm well aware this review is horribly belated. I read The Last Hawk when it came out in hardback, and now even its paperback release has been out for quite some time. This sorry state of affairs is entirely due to my own procrastination - Asaro's novel is a captivating read. Some details a few paragraphs below might be considered SPOILERS for The Last Hawk; I don't think so myself but if you don't like to know anything about a book before you start it you should skip this review. Also, this review contains some comments about Anne McCaffrey's newer book Nimisha's Ship, in which that work suffers by comparison with Asaro's - rabid McCaffrey fans will want to skip this, rather than waste time trying to change my mind about it. Otherwise, please press on...

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IF an sf writer is going to build a successful universe in which to set stories - I'm not for a moment suggesting that this is the only way to be a good sf writer, but it's certainly one good way - then it helps to build your universe well from the very beginning. Construct a milieu large enough to hold more tales than any one person could possibly write, but confine each individual vision to a comprehensible human scale - no ten-page lists of dramatis personae, please. Place stories in their settings as if they were sonic sculptures, near enough to harmonize but not so close together that they interfere or become cloying. Allow the details that define your universe to emerge from the background in their own time, as much as possible, rather than thrusting them in the readers' faces. And avoid getting too comfortable with the same cast of characters in every book.

Dr. Catherine Asaro, physicist by day and author by night - or is it the other way around? - knows how to build a universe.

In her third novel, The Last Hawk, Asaro shows us another facet of the same milieu - known variously as the Ruby Dynasty or the Skolian Imperialate - that served as the background for her first two books, the stunning debut Primary Inversion and the Sapphire award-winning Catch the Lightning. But by confining her setting to a single planet - the Restricted world of Coba, cut off from the Galaxy-spanning Skolian civilization - and showing it to us through the eyes of a single stranger (Kelric Valdoria, Imperial Jagernaut and heir to the Skolian throne), Asaro succeeds in adding depth this time, rather than breadth, to her universe.

It is a familiar trope, really: exceptional outsider cast away in an isolated, hostile place beats the natives at their own game. In Coba's case, the game at which Kelric beats the natives is literal: the various feudal Estates of which Coban society consists have avoided war for centuries by sublimating their conflicts into a complex dice game called Quis. On Coba, though, Quis is not merely a game; it's a meta-language capable of modeling every aspect of human behavior, from diplomacy to nuclear physics. To foster this, Asaro wisely shows us little of the actual rules of the game, not enough to play it for oneself but enough to get a sense of how it just might be able to be used as a metaphor for everything.

Kelric's alien perspective makes him a uniquely devastating player of Quis, of course; that's how this plot goes. Yet Kelric finds himself handicapped by another significant element of Coban society that differs substantially both from our own and from the Skolian Imperialate, in which Kelric is a member of the ruling class in more ways than one. Asaro takes the opportunity here to reverse gender roles; on Coba, the political and commercial leaders are women, and men are sexual playthings, tavern singers... and Quis players. Every female Manager of a Coban Estate has her stable of Calanyi, male Quis players who, bound by rules as restrictive as in a Terran seraglio, nevertheless reach out through their Quis to manipulate Coban society quite as effectively as any behind-the-scenes matriarch here on Earth. Kelric's ability to play Quis becomes a tool, not for himself but for the Manager of the Estate he ends up in, and he who was in the habit of command must enter one of these harems and obey its rules to survive. His continual forced adjustment to this submissive, subtle, yet powerful role is one of the primary tensions in the book.

The Last Hawk is no humorless tract, though. Asaro indulges in a fair amount of playful extrapolation from her starting point. Seeing Coban women explain quite seriously how men are just too flighty to be leaders is pretty funny, for instance.

Asaro does eventually provide some half-serious underpinning for her reassignment of gender roles. In the glossary, she defines "Post-Quis Deconstructive Thematics" (a concept that appears nowhere in the book itself, by the way) as a:

Scholarly theory of modernist criticism that claims Quis is used to control male aggression and sexuality by sublimating it into the dice network. The theory is considered seditious by the women on the Quis Council. However, it creates less controversy than might be expected, mainly because no one can figure out what the heck 'Post-Quis Deconstructive Thematics' means.

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Maybe it's just the similar settings, the mountain fastnesses, feudalistic mores and airborne commerce of the Cobans, or perhaps it's the althawks, the great, intelligent flying creatures whose image dominates much of Coban folklore the way dragons dominate Pern, but I found myself comparing The Last Hawk quite favorably with the earliest books of Anne McCaffrey, back in those happy years before Pern became a franchise operation. I'll tell you one thing, having just finished McCaffrey's own recent offering Nimisha's Ship, which has a somewhat similar plot: Asaro's work beats the pants off of McCaffrey's now.

The differences are in execution, characterization and style, rather than in any details of plot. Both Asaro and McCaffrey are eminently competent writers, but The Last Hawk just seems to me to have more of the writer's heart in it. McCaffrey's insufferably perfect polymath Nimisha allows herself to be steered by her author through one spring-loaded funhouse scare after another, never displaying a single unpleasant emotion as, somehow, things always seem to Turn Out Just Right for her and for just about anyone she likes. After awhile, though, it doesn't seem to matter, because it's plain to see that the whole thing was rigged in Nimisha's favor from the get-go.

Asaro's Jagernaut Kelricson Valdoria is a similar pinnacle of human evolution, with psychic powers and a built-in biomechanical combat system that Nimisha never had to boot, but when he crash-lands on Coba at a critical point in its history he gets horribly injured and never does fully recover. The very air, food and water of the planet are slowly killing him, and he has no magic autodoctor to rejuvenate him at convenient intervals (his nanomeds were damaged in the crash). And, although he ends up changing the entire gender-reversed feudal society in which he finds himself in large measure simply by being his genetically-superior and multi-talented self, nevertheless Kelric suffers, gets angry at the wrong things, hurts people's feelings and doesn't get the chance to apologize... in short, he is real. Asaro understands what McCaffrey appears to have forgotten, that sometimes even the characters you like have to lose so that the story can win.

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I dunno. If you asked me to point to a single element of Asaro's work here that is one hundred percent original, I don't think I could do it. The tropes she uses and the situations her characters encounter are in and of themselves not really groundbreaking stuff, I guess. Nevertheless, there's a freshness in the way Asaro writes about the people she's created that rekindles in me some of the gosh-wow feeling that I remember starting to read sf for, lo these many years ago.

The plain fact is, I enjoy the hell out of her books. It's obvious she had loads of fun writing them, and I have fun reading them. And I think you might, too.

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Catherine Asaro, The Last Hawk. Tor hardback, ISBN 0-312-86044-7, US$25.95. More information about Catherine Asaro's books is available at

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©1999 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

This document was last updated December 31, 1999.

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